Nature’s Medicine: Could Green Prescribing Shape the Future of our Health?

Shauna Walker contextualises the UK government’s recent investment in ‘green social prescribing.’

In 2020 the UK Government announced that it would be investing millions into a ‘green social prescribing’ programme which would involve general practitioners (GPs) recommending nature-based activities to improve people’s physical and mental wellbeing. This new scheme is part of a resurgent interest in what has traditionally been called ‘the nature cure’.

Historically, it was believed that time spent in places such as mountain sanatoriums or seaside retreats would harness the restorative powers of nature, healing people who sought after ‘fresh air’ and an escape from densely populated cities. Many illnesses, including asthma and tuberculosis, were interpreted as symptomatic of a more general need to spend more time in nature. But with the rise of germ theory and laboratory science throughout the 20th century (Nash, 2006), these beliefs gradually waned and health was increasingly studied on a microbial level.

More recently, academic writers like Samantha Walton have noticed that over the twenty-first century interest in nature cures have grown ‘steadily in an era of […] stark and entangled social inequality and planetary unwellness’ (Walton 2022). Activities and schemes like green prescribing and forest bathing (a Japanese method of taking slow, mindful walks in forests) express an understandable desire to connect with landscapes that feel increasingly fragile and difficult to access.

But as Walton has pointed out, the nature cure has the worrying potential to become merely ‘a sticking plaster’ rather than a tool for real transformative change, as wellbeing activities and products become ‘commodified’ and ‘depoliticised’ (Walton 2022). Although time spent in nature can be undoubtedly good for our mental and physical health, GP green prescriptions can be used to take demand off an underfunded national healthcare system and could postpone people’s access to NHS-funded counselling. In the UK, green prescribing therefore runs the risk of becoming a shallow diversion from addressing systemic inequalities and could seem out of touch with access issues such as land privatisation and poor public transport infrastructures.

Languages of Purity and Pollution

It is important to remember that neither ‘health’ nor ‘nature’ are ideologically neutral concepts. Both are used to invoke whatever is perceived as ideologically acceptable or desirable, and they are usually imbued with values such as ‘wholeness’, ‘purity’ and ‘balance’. The ‘rolling hills’ of the British countryside are the product of decades of agricultural deforestation and labour, and what is deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pathological’ changes throughout history. These value-laden terms prove especially worrying when it comes to wellness products which are frequently advertised as ‘natural’, drawing on frameworks of purity and pollution as they advertise that their products will ‘cleanse’ and ‘detox’ the body. Not only does this turn health into something that can be individually bought and consumed, but it also reinforces the misleading idea that ‘naturalness’ can be used as a crass measurement of a person’s health.

Sarah Jaquette Ray has noted that the environmental movement often uses a language of purity and pollution which focusses ‘on the body as a means of getting close to nature, or a means of recovering a lost connection to nature’ (Ray 2013, 2). Since this follows the logic of ‘“a healthy body is a natural body is a healthy nature”’ (Ray, 4), the nature cure can have worrying implications for people with chronic illnesses or disabilities as they are perceived as more alienated and distant from what is deemed ‘natural’. Those born with disabilities or chronic illnesses can be devalued as ‘nature gone wrong’ whilst people who have developed illnesses throughout their lifetime can be judged as having made unnatural lifestyle choices regarding food, exercise or drugs. Meanwhile, the young and able-bodied outdoor enthusiast is held up as one of the ideal figures of the environmental movement, but this often takes for granted that not everyone is physically capable of walking or exercising in nature.

Racial backgrounds can be another barrier for accessing nature. Only 1% of visitors to the British countryside are from ethnic minority backgrounds (Hayes 2020, 156). This can be put down to the fact that, as Corrine Fowler points out in her exploration of rural England’s colonial history, images of the countryside have historically depicted it as a ‘white preserve’ (Fowler 2020, 18). If health equals nature and nature equals health, then those people who do not have the same access to green spaces are potentially stigmatised as ‘unhealthy’ as a result.

‘Ecstasy in Living’

Despite these challenges, I want to ask whether the concept of a ‘nature cure’ is ultimately worth holding onto? Numerous human medicines do, after all, originate from plants and fungi and many people who have so far taken part in trials for green prescribing have reported positive results.[1]  Clearly then, spending time in nature is good for our wellbeing. But the nature cure can only serve a progressive purpose if it is community-driven, intersectional and is not simply commodified. Walton succinctly frames this problem by asking: ‘Is there such a thing as a nature cure that isn’t ableist, but is instead accessible to anyone who desires beauty and a connection with nature?’ (Walton 2021, 8). For Walton, anything that invokes the ‘nature cure’ needs to consider how factors such as race, class, gender, and disability interact if it is going to really address the reasons why people become well and unwell.

Seeing health and the environment as inextricably connected helps us to reimagine green spaces not merely as an attractive backdrop, but as an active agent involved in both the survival and flourishing of all life. Concerns over air pollution, zoonotic diseases, food production and housing are all examples of the way that our environment is an integral part of human health. They are daily reminders that our bodies are more porous than they initially seem, and that health cannot be fully controlled under conditions of human power or expertise.

As noted by Harold Fromm,

[the environment] runs right through us in endless waves, and if we were to watch ourselves via some ideal microscopic time-lapse video, we would see water, air, food, microbes, toxins entering our bodies as we shed, excrete, and exhale our processed materials back out (Fromm, 1997).

Although an awareness of our inherent vulnerability can be intimidating, when we spend time in what we perceive as nature, we can also find what Emily Dickinson calls ‘ecstasy in living’ (Dickinson 1958, 342). Rather than be overwhelmed by the threats in our environment, these moments can create space to enjoy the simple sensation of aliveness as well as encourage respect for the abundant presence of nonhuman life, which we often take for granted.

Green prescribing could help cultivate these experiences, but only if it also addresses the social and physical barriers to accessing nature. Although moving forward we must be wary of reproducing myths of ‘untouched’ nature, the nature cure could serve as a radical challenge to the destruction of human and planetary health in an age of climate change and eroding healthcare systems.

About the author

Shauna Walker is an AHRC-funded PhD student in the School of English department at The University of Leeds. Shauna’s PhD thesis explores environmental health in 1920’s and 1930’s British literature and considers its relationship to nationhood and modernity.

References

Dickinson, Emily. 1958. Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Fowler, Corrine. 2020. Green Unpleasant Land: Creative Responses to Rural England’s Colonial Connections. Leeds: Peepal Trees Press.

Fromm, Harold. 1997. “The ‘Environment’ Is Us”, Electronic Book Review.

Hayes, Nick. 2020. The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines That Divide Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nash, Linda. 2006. Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease and Knowledge. Carolina: University of Carolina Press.

Ray, Sarah Jaquette. 2013. The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture. Arizona: University of Arizona Press.

Walton, Samantha. 2021. Everybody Needs Nature: In Search of the Nature Cure. London: Bloomsbury.

Walton, Samantha. 2022. “In Search of the ‘nature cure’”. Wellcomecollection. Last modified 1st June, 2022. https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/YoZ7uBEAACIAWWLs


[1] For more information, see: https://www.rspb.org.uk/about-the-rspb/about-us/media-centre/press-releases/nature-prescriptions-edinburgh-results/

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